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Dear Viv
2005, Q2 (July 06, 2007)

Advice for the Discerning Technical Communicator

Dear Viv,

A co-worker asked me if I can help his friend get a job as a technical writer. He said his friend has no technical knowledge or writing experience, but he knew he would be an excellent technical writer, because his friend “is a really fast typist.”

I really didn’t respond, because I was so overwhelmed by the shrieking inside my head. What should have said?


45 words per minute

Dear 45 words per minuter,

Invite your co-worker’s friend to shadow you for two days, preferably right before a major release. Be sure to schedule meetings with developers who have added features and modified the GUI at their whim, forcing you to work 80 hours that week to update screen shots and documentation in time for another review. Even better, make him decipher your editor’s red scrawl and incorporate the edits. Oh yes, and whine (literally and frequently) about the carpal-tunnel syndrome you’ve developed after years of keeping up at this pace. Don’t forget to wear the wrist braces!

I think you get the idea. Make those two days the most miserable and grueling you’ve ever experienced in your career as a technical writer. In addition to scaring your co-worker’s friend, you might learn something about yourself in the process. End of article.

Dear Viv,

Like any good technical writer, have tried to avoid sexism in my writing. Instead of saying “he” or “she” (or the dread “he/she”), was taught to write my way around gender. And so have done.

Usually, as am writing instructions, use the second person “you,” but when writing in the third person, it’s harder. Using a sexless term (“the installer”) may work, but then any pronouns are singular (thus, must choose “he” or “she”). can repeat the sexless term to avoid the singular pronoun—”When the installer turns the handle, the installer may be sprayed with poisonous gas”—but it’s awkward. To avoid the whole sex issue that singular pronouns necessarily introduce, Ii have tried plural nouns.

Plurals can be confusing when things that are true for one user may not apply to other users. I’ve even seen books where the author carefully alternates between “she” and “he,” but never gone that far.

I'm tired. Would it be a crime against my profession if Ii were to revert to using “he” as the generic singular pronoun?


Tech Writer Chick

Dear Tech Writer Chick,

No matter what you decide to do, you’re going to offend some sensitive or easily confused soul. The simplest answer? Write down the options you’ve come up with on little squares of paper. Put the squares in a clean receptacle and shake it a bit. Now ask an impartial coworker to make a choice (impartial meaning anyone but a writer or editor). That’s your answer.

Translation: I’m not accusing you, my dear tech writer chick, but some people are entirely too serious about life, including grammar. Split those infinitives, end sentences with propositions, begin sentences with conjunctions! Do whatever you want, it’s all subjective!

.....or not.

If you can’t avoid writing in the third person, use “he” and be done with it (this coming from an avowed feminist). The other choices (s/he, he or she, he/she) are too impersonal and awkward. Alternating between he and she may please the politically correct, but it’s much too confusing for the reader.

Happy writing! End of article.

Dear Viv invites constructive criticism, solicitations for advice—any sort of response, really. Email Viv at dear_viv at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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